Last April, the National Rugby Football League announced a roster of sixty players who were selected for the Rough Riders, “the 1st (sic) professional rugby team in U.S. history”. These players were to attend a training camp in June, from which a final roster would be selected for an exhibition match against the Leicester Tigers in August. This match did not occur due to the sanctioning debacle and most of those prospective players went back to playing for a club team if they bothered to continue with rugby at all.
One of the few items of note to come from the league in the following months was Taylor Gentry’s trial in South Africa. Gentry, a former North Carolina State football player, was reportedly going to play with the Natal Sharks in the Currie Cup but wound up playing a little further down the system for a side competing in KwaZulu-Natal’s amateur club competition. Gentry joined Quenten White and Joel Yogerst, two players who trialed for Bristol in 2014, as players who have been noticed as a result of their involvement with the NRFL. These players all reportedly did very well with their clubs, but none got a further look. All in all, the NRFL has mostly failed to open up more opportunities for Americans in professional rugby.
There are a few other Rough Riders who have gotten professional opportunities lately, but I doubt you’ll hear anything from the NRFL about it. That’s because those players are participating in PRO Rugby’s inaugural season. Three players from that initial Rough Riders roster are playing with PRO teams this year: Spike Davis and Alex Elkins with Ohio, and Chris Baumann with Denver. While these are players who looked at the NRFL as one potential pro option, you can’t credit the NRFL for the discovery of these players. Davis and Elkins both worked their way into the Ohio squad through Tiger Rugby, one of USA Rugby’s official Olympic Development Academies. Both players have made it as far as the USA Falcons, the sevens A-side, and Davis has also trained with USA’s Americas Rugby Championship squad. In contrast to two of the faster-rising stars in U.S. rugby, Baumann had already been on the Eagles radar for years while playing for a smorgasbord of top American clubs. He finally earned his first caps last year and made it onto the USA squad for the Rugby World Cup.
The NRFL is hosting another one of its combines next week in Atlanta, the fourth since the Independence Cup cancellation. It is essentially a combine to nothing: the NRFL has yet to announce what its upcoming exhibition series will entail, they promise to kick off their inaugural season “next year” for the third year in a row, and there is only a slight chance that attending one of these combines will result in an overseas trial. It remains to be seen how well the NRFL does in continuing to attract athletes to their combines, but there is now a few years worth of evidence showing that this is not the best path for prospective rugby professionals and those taking the sport seriously are looking elsewhere.